A West Virginia man who was a former contractor in Iraq proposed setting up a meeting with Russians and the Trump campaign last year to discuss their "shared Christian values," raising new questions for investigators to explore as part of their Russia inquiry.
Current and former US intelligence and law enforcement officials, as well as other intelligence experts, say that Russians sought to employ covert tactics to find entry points into the Trump campaign. And more broadly, experts say, Russian intelligence services have sought to court conservative organizations, including religious groups, to build alliances in the United States.
It's unclear whether this attempted meeting amounted to such a tactic, or if it was simply an innocent request.
The Trump campaign appears to have rejected the meeting request -- and seemed to believe it was serious enough to suggest that the matter should be handled by the State Department, CNN has learned.
The West Virginia man, Rick Clay, told CNN Friday that he called one of then-candidate Donald Trump's top aides, Rick Dearborn, to pass along a request from a friend who wanted to set up a meeting with Russians and the Trump campaign.
Clay, 54, said his friend was a devout Christian who had come in contact with Russians through their work in Christian organizations. Clay could not recall the names of the Russians, and he did not disclose the name of his friend who sought the meeting, only saying he lives part of the year in Alaska and part of the year in Pennsylvania.
"The thought was if there was an opportunity there to get two sides together to talk about Christian values, then that's important," Clay said of a Russian meeting with senior-level Trump officials. "That was the gist of it, and it didn't go anywhere."
Dearborn, who is now the White House deputy chief of staff, did not act on the request and told Clay it was "inappropriate," saying such matters needed to go through the "proper channels" of the State Department, according to Clay.
At least one member of Congress was aware that Clay wanted to contact Dearborn about meeting with Russians: Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican.
Clay had told Capito about his desire to discuss the Russia matter with the campaign, a Republican source said, and she passed Clay's contact information along to Dearborn because of the role he played as a campaign liaison to GOP senators. The GOP source said that was the extent of Capito's involvement.
"Sen. Capito received a request from a constituent to pass along his contact information to the Trump campaign," a Capito spokesperson confirmed in a statement Thursday evening. "She did so and asked the campaign to follow up."
Clay said that he had been in contact with Dearborn before reaching out to Capito.
The matter burst into public view last week when CNN reported about an email turned over to multiple congressional committees as part of their classified investigations into Russia meddling in the election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.
According to sources with direct knowledge of the matter, Dearborn made brief mention in a 2016 email about an individual only identified as "WV," who wanted to connect the campaign with Russian President Vladimir Putin. One source said Dearborn suggested in the email he was skeptical of the meeting request.
Clay told CNN that the meeting request was not with Putin himself but with "lower level" people, though he did not specify whom.
The White House would not comment on or confirm Clay's account, or respond to questions about the Russian contacts with whom Clay was seeking to connect the campaign.
But the President's special counsel, Ty Cobb, told CNN that Dearborn has been "vindicated by the actual facts" and any suggestions that the senior White House aide did anything wrong amounted to "salacious speculation" by the media.
"The relevant congressional committees and special counsel are receiving full cooperation from the White House, and we are respecting their respective processes," said Cobb, who is handling the Russia investigations for the White House.
The Dearborn email was sent in June 2016, right around the time that Donald Trump Jr., Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner as well as then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, had privately met with Russians at Trump Tower after the younger Trump was promised dirt on the Clinton campaign and was informed of the Russian government's desire to aid his father's campaign.
Other Trump campaign officials also had contacts with other Russians during the campaign season and transition period, and campaign adviser George Papadopoulos repeatedly tried to set up meetings between high-level Trump officials and the upper ranks of the Russian leadership, CNN and The Washington Post have reported. The campaign did not act on Papadopoulos' request, a source told CNN.
The Dearborn email raised questions among intelligence officials about whether the requested meeting was part of an overall pattern of Russians trying to find new ways into the campaign.
Asked if he viewed this requested meeting as a Russian intelligence operation, Clay was skeptical but wasn't sure.
"I mean you never know about that," said Clay, who worked as a contractor during the Iraq war and was severely injured there. "I mean how can anybody ever know about that? You kind of look at people you know -- when you meet Russians and people come from other countries, and I travel all over the world. You try to trust them, and if you are dealing with someone from the government, or the Russian government or from another form of government, you got to be careful because you never know."
added: "I think you would be stretching it to say it was an intelligence effort to infiltrate the Trump administration. I think you're stretching that. But, you never know."
Experts in Russian covert activity say that Russians have sought to build ties with conservative groups and religious organizations as part of an effort to build alliances with the United States.
Steve Hall, a retired CIA chief of Russian operations, said Russians have tried to "use right-wing religious parts of the American right to find common ground with Russian orthodoxy."
Hall said there has been a "long and torrid history" of cooperation of the Russian intelligence services and Russian religious institutions.
"The (Russian) church has always been willing to act as an enabler either by the intelligence services or the Kremlin itself," said Hall, who is also a CNN national security analyst.
Some of the Russian outreach focuses on gun rights and Christian causes -- bread-and-butter issues for American conservatives, but not a major part of Russia's political landscape.
Hall said the goal of the Russian intelligence services is to "focus on how are we going to penetrate the American political system."
But Clay said that it never crossed his mind such a meeting request was a Russian intelligence operation, saying he believed it was just an effort to bring both sides together to discuss shared Christian values.
"The context of the thing is this was before even the Russian collusion thing was even talked about," Clay said.